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The State of Iowa
Indian Wars

The following is a chapter from "The History of Jefferson County, Iowa", Pages 152-157, published by the Western Historical Company of Chicago in 1879.



The Territory of Iowa, although it had been purchased by the United States, and was ostensibly in the possession of the Government, was still occupied by the Indians, who claimed title to the soil by right of ownership and possession. Before it could be opened to settlement by the whites, it was indispensable that the Indian title should be extinguished and the original owners removed. The accomplishment of this purpose required the expenditure of large sums of money and blood, and for a long series of years the frontier was disturbed by Indian wars, terminated repeatedly by treaty, only to be renewed by some act of oppression on the part of the whites or some violation of treaty stipulation.

As previously shown, at the time when the United States assumed the control of the country by virtue of the Louisnana purchase, nearly the whole State was in possession of the Sacs and Foxes, a powerful and warlike nation, who were not disposed to submit without a struggle to what they considered the encroachment of the pale faces.

Among the most noted chiefs, and one whose restlessness and hatred of the Americans occasioned more trouble to the Government than any other of his tribe, was Black Hawk, who was born at the Sac village, on Rock River, in 1767. He was simply the chief of his own band of Sac warriors, but by his energy and ambition he became the leading spirit of the united nation of Sacs and Foxes, and one of the prominent figures in the history of the country from 1804 until his death. In early manhood he attained some distinction as a fighting chief, having led campaigns against the Osages, and other neighboring tribes. About the beginning of the present century he began to appear prominent in affairs on the Mississippi. Some historians have added to the statement that "it does not appear that he was ever a great general, or possessed of any of the qualifications of a successful leader." If this was so, his life was a marvel. How any man who had none of the qualifications of a leader became so prominent as such, as he did, indicates either that he had some ability, or that his cotemporaries, both Indian and Anglo-Saxon, had less than he. He is said to have been the "victom of a narrow prejudice and bitter ill-will against the Americans," but the impartial historian must admit that if he was the enemy of the Americans, it was certainly not without some reason.

It will be remembered that Spain did not give up possession of the country to France on its cession to the latter power, in 1801, but retained possession of it, and, by the authority of France, transferred it to the United States, in 1804. Black Hawk and his band were in St. Louis at the time, and were invited to be present and witness the ceremonies of the transfer, but he refused the invitation, and it is but just to say that this refusal was caused probably more from regret that the Indians were to be transferred from the jurisdiction of the Spanish authorities than from any special hatred toward the Americans. In his life he says: "I found many sad and gloomy faces because the United States were about to take possession of the town and country. Soon after the Americans came, I took my band and went to take leave of our Spanish father. The Americans came to see him also. Seeing them approach, we passed out of one door as they entered another, and immediately started in our canoes for our village, on Rock River, not liking the change any more than our friends appeared to at St. Louis. On arriving at our village, we gave the news that strange people had arrived at St. Louis, and that we should never see our Spanish father again. the information made all our people sorry."

On the 3d day of November, 1804, a treaty was concluded between William Henry Harrison, then Governor of Indiana Territory, on behalf of the United States, and five chiefs of the Sac and Fox nation, by which the latter, in consideration of two thousand two hundred and thirty-four dollars' worth of goods then delivered, and a yearly annuity of one thousand dollars to be paid in goods at just cost, ceded to the United States all that land on the east side of the Mississippi, extending from a point opposite the Jefferson, in Missouri, to the Wisconsin River, embracing an area of over fifty-one millions of acres.

To this treaty Black Hawk always objected and always refused to consider it binding upon his people. He asserted that the chiefs or braves who made it had no authority to relinquish the title of the nation to any of the lands they held or occupied; and, moreover, that they had been sent to St. Louis on quite a different errand, namely, to get one of their people released, who had been imprisoned at St. Louis for killing a white man.

The year following this treaty (1805), Lieutenant Zebulon M. Pike came up the river for the purpose of holding friendly councils with the Indians and selecting sites for forts within the territory recently acquired from France by the United States. Lieutenant Pike seems to have been the first American whom Black Hawk ever met or had a personal interview with; and he was very much propossessed in Pike's favor. He gives the following account of his visit to Rock Island:

"A boat came up the river with a young American chief and a small party of soldiers. We heard of them soon after they passed Salt River. Some of our young braves watched them every day, to see what sort of people he had on board. The boat at length arrived at Rock River, and the young chief came on shore with his interpreter, and made a speech and gave us some presents. We in turn presented them with meat and such other provisions as we had to spare. We were well pleased with the young chief. He gave us good advice, and said our American father would treat us well."

The events which soon followed Pike's expedition were the erection of Fort Edwards, at what is now Warsaw, Illinois, and Fort Madison, on the site of the present town of that name, the latter being the first fort erected in Iowa. These movements occasioned great uneasiness among the Indians. When work was commenced on Fort Edwards, a delegation from their nation, headed by some of their chiefs, went down to see what the Americans were doing, and had an interview with the commander; after which they returned home apparently satisfied. In like manner, when Fort Madison was being erected, they sent down another delegation from a council of the nation held at Rock River. According to Black Hawk's account, the American chief told them that he was building a house for a trader who was coming to sell them goods cheap, and that the soldiers were coming to keep him company -- a statement which Black Hawk says they distrusted at the time, believing that the fort was an encroachment upon their rights, and designed to aid in getting their lands away from them.

It has been held by good American authorities, that the erection of Fort Madison at the point where it was located was a violation of the treaty of 1804. By the eleventh article of that treaty, the United States had a right to build a fort near the mouth of the Wisconsin River; by article six they had bound themselves "that if any citizen of the United States or any other white persons should form a settlement upon their lands, such intruders should forthwith be removed." Probably the authorities of the United States did not regard the establishment of military posts as coming properly within the meaning of the term "settlement," as used in the treaty. At all events, they erected Fort Madison within the territory reserved to the Indians, who became very indignant. Not long after the fort was built, a party led by Black Hawk attempted its destruction. They sent spies to watch the movements of the garrison, who ascertained that the soldiers were in the habit of marching out of the fort every morning and evening for parade, and the plan of the party was to conceal themselves near the fort, and attack and surprise them when they were outside. On the morning of the propsed day of attack, five soldiers came out and were fired upon by the Indians, two of them being killed. The Indians were too hasty in their movement, for the regular drill had not yet commenced. However, they kept up the attack for several days, attempting the old Fox strategy of setting fire to the fort with blazing arrows; but finding their efforts unavailing, they soon gave up and returned to Rock River.

When war was declared between the United States and Great Britain, in 1812, Black Hawk and his band allied themselves with the British, partly because he was dazzled by their specious promises, and more probably because they had been deceived by the Americans. Black Hawk himself declared that they were "forced into the war by being deceived." He narrates the circumstances as follows: "Several of the chiefs and head men of the Sacs and Foxes were called upon to go to Washington to see their Great Father. On their return, they related what had been said and done. They said the Great Father wished them, in the event of a war taking place with England, not to interfere on either side, but to remain neutral. He did not want our help, but wished us to hunt and support our families, and live in peace. He said that British traders would not be permitted to come on the Mississippi to furnish us with goods, but that we should be supplied with an American trader. Our chiefs then told him that the British traders always gave them credit in the Fall for guns, powder and goods, to enable us to hunt and clothe our families. He repeated that the traders at Fort Madison would have plenty of goods; that we should go there in the Fall and he would supply us on credit, as the British traders had done."

Black Hawk seems to have accepted of this proposition, and he and his people were very much pleased. Acting in good faith, they fitted out for their Winter's hunt, and went to Fort Madison in high spirits to receive from the trader their outfit of supplies. But, after waiting some time, they were told by the trader that he would not trust them. It was in vain that they pleaded the promise of their great father at Washington. The trader was inexorable; and, disappointed and crestfallen, they turned sadly toward their own village. "Few of us," says Black Hawk, "slept that night; all was gloom and discontent. In the morning, a canoe was seen ascending the river; it soon arrived, bearing an express, who brought intelligence that a British trader had landed at Rock Island with two boats loaded with goods, and requested us to come up immediately, because he had good news for us, and a variety of presents. The express presented us with tobacco, pipes and wampum. The news ran through our camp like fire on a prairie. Our lodges were soon taken down, and all started for Rock Island. Here ended all hopes of our remaining at peace, having been forced into the war by being deceived."

He joined the British, who flattered him, styled him "Gen. Black Hawk," decked him with medals, excited his jealousies against the Americans, and armed his band; but he met with defeat and disappointment, and soon abandoned the service and came home.

With all his skill and courage, Black Hawk was unable to lead all the Sacs and Foxes into hostilities to the United States. A portion of them, at the head of whom was Keokuk ("the Watchful Fox"), were disposed to abide by the treaty of 1804, and to cultivate friendly relations with the American people. Therefore, when Black Hawk and his band joined the fortunes of Great Britain, the rest of the nation remained neutral, and, for protection, organized with Keokuk for their chief. This divided the nation into the "War and the Peace party."

Black Hawk says he was informed, after he had gone to the war, that the nation, which had been reduced to so small a body of fighting men, were unable to defend themselves in case the Americans should attack them, and having all the old men and women and children belonging to the warriors who had joined the British on their hands to provide for, a council was held, and it was agreed that Quash-qua-me (the Lance) and other chiefs, together with the old men, women and children, and such others as chose to accompany them, should go to St. Louis and place themselves under the American chief stationed there. They accordingly went down, and were received as the "friendly band" of the Sacs and Foxes, and were provided for and sent up the Missouri River. On Black Hawk's return from the British army, he says Keokuk was introduced to him as the war chief of the braves then in the village. He inquired how he had become chief, and was informed that their spies had seen a large armed force going toward Peoria, and fears were entertained of an attack upon the village; whereupon a council was held, which concluded to leave the village and cross over to the west side of the Mississippi. Keokuk had been standing at the door of the lodge where the council was held, not being allowed to enter on account of never having killed an enemy, where he remained until Wa-co-me came out. Keokuk asked permission to speak in the council, which Wa-co-me obtained for him. Keokuk then addressed the chiefs; he remonstrated against the desertion of their village, their own homes and the graves of their fathers, and offered to defend the village. He marshaled his braves, sent out spies, and advanced on the trail leading to Peoria, but returned without seeing the enemy. The Americans did not disturb the village, and all were satisfied with the appointment of Keokuk.

Keokuk, like Black Hawk, was a descendant of the Sac branch of the nation, and was born on Rock River, in 1780. He was of a pacific disposition, but possessed the elements of true courage, and could fight, when occasion required, with a cool judgment and heroic energy. In his first battle, he encountered and killed a Sioux, which placed him in the rank of warriors, and he was honored with a public feast by his tribe in commemoration of the event.

Keokuk has been described as an orator, entitled to rank with the most gifted of his race. In person, he was tall and of portly bearing; in his public speeches, he displayed a commanding attitude and graceful gestures; he spoke rapidly, but his enunciation was clear, distinct and forcible; he culled his figures from the stores of nature and based his arguments on skillful logic. Unfortunately for the reputation of Keokuk, as an orator among white people, he was never able to obtain an interpreter who could claim even a slight acquaintance with philosophy. With one exception only, his interpreters were unacquainted with the elements of their mother-tongue. Of this serious hindrance to his fame, Keokuk was well aware, and retained Frank Labersure, who had received a rudimental education in the French and English languages, until the latter broke down by dissipation and died. But during the meridian of his career among the white people, he was compelled to submit his speeches for translation to uneducated men, whose range of thought fell below the flights of a gifted mind, and the fine imagery, drawn from nature was beyond their power of reproduction. He had sufficient knowledge of the English language to make him sensible of this bad rendering of his thoughts, and often a feeling of mortification at the bungling efforts was depicted on his countenance while speaking. The proper place to form a correct estimate of his ability as an orator was in the Indian council, where he addressed himself exclusively to those who understood his language, and witness the electrical effect of his eloquence upon his audience.

Keokuk seems to have possessed a more sober judgment, and to have had a more intelligent view of the great strength and resources of the United States, than his noted and restless cotemporary, Black Hawk. He knew from the first that the reckless war which Black Hawk and his band had determined to carry on could result in nothing but defeat and disaster, and used every argument against it. The large number of warriors whom he had dissuaded from following Black Hawk became, however, greatly excited with the war spirit after Stillman's defeat, and but for the signal tact displayed by Keokuk on that occasion, would have forced him to submit to their wishes in joining the rest of the warriors in the field. A war-dance was held, and Keokuk took part in it, seeming to be moved with the current of the rising storm. When the dance was over, he called the council to prepare for war. He made a speech, in which he admitted the justice of their complaints against the Americans. To seek redress was a noble aspiration of their nature. The blood of their brethren had been shed by the white man, and the spirits of their braves, slain in battle, called loudly for vengeance. "I am your chief," he said, "and it is my duty to lead you to battle, if, after fully considering the matter, you are determined to go. But before you decide on taking this important step, it is wise to inquire into the chances of success." He then portrayed to them the great power of the United States, against whom they would have to contend, that their chance of success was utterly hopeless. "But," said he, "if you do determine to go upon the warpath, I will agree to lead you, on one condition, viz.: that before we go, we will kill all our old men and our wives and children, to save them from a lingering death of starvation, and that every one of us determine to leave our homes on the other side of the Mississippi."

This was a strong but truthful picture of the prospect before them, and was presented in such a forcible light as to cool their ardor, and cause them to abandon the rash undertaking.

But during the war of 1832, it is now considered certain that small bands of Indians, from the west side of the Mississippi, made incursions into the white settlements, in the lead mining region, and committed some murders and depredations.

When peace was declared between the United States and England, Black Hawk was required to make peace with the former, and entered into a treaty at Portage des Sioux, September 14, 1815, but did not "touch the goose-quill to it until May 13, 1816, when he smoked the pipe of peace with the great white chief," at St. Louis. This treaty was a renewal of the treaty of 1804, but Black Hawk declared he had been deceived; that he did not know that by signing the treaty he was giving away his village. This weighed upon his mind, already soured by previous disappointment and the irresistible encroachments of the whites; and when, a few years later, he and his people were driven from their possessions by the military, he determined to return to the home of his fathers.

It is also to be remarked that, in 1816, by treaty with the various tribes, the United States relinquished to the Indians all the lands lying north of a line drawn from the southermost point of Lake Michigan west to the Mississippi, except a reservation five leagues square, on the Mississippi River, supposed then to be sufficient to include all the mineral lands on and adjacent to Fever River, and one league square at the mouth of the Wisconsin River.

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